Gov. Jan Brewer has urged the justices to revive the law. Above, Brewer after… (Isaac Brekken, Associated…)
Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court, already poised to decide one hot-button political issue during an election year, may also tackle the Obama administration's challenge to Arizona's law requiring its police to check the immigration status of people who are stopped.
At issue is not only who can enforce immigration laws but also what the policy should be for the millions of illegal immigrants living and working in the country. President Obama's team has targeted for deportation illegal immigrants who are criminals, smugglers and repeat border crossers, not those who obey the criminal laws.
Last year, the administration went to court in Phoenix to block Arizona's stepped-up enforcement law, known as SB 1070. Administration lawyers argued that the power to enforce immigration laws rested exclusively with the federal government, and they won rulings that put Arizona's law on hold.
But Republican Gov. Jan Brewer appealed to the high court and urged the justices to revive the law. The federal enforcement system is "broken," Arizona's lawyers argued, and states should be accorded the "police power" to enforce the law within their borders.
The justices met Friday to consider the issue, and they may announce Monday whether they will hear Arizona's appeal.
The court has already agreed to decide whether the Obama healthcare law is constitutional. If it takes the immigration case as well, both decisions probably would come down by late June, just months before the presidential nominating conventions.
Since taking office, the administration has deported a record number of illegal immigrants, and it has gone after employers who knowingly hire illegal workers. At the same time, its lawyers have stressed that "mere unlawful presence" in this country is a civil violation but not a crime.
A Supreme Court ruling in a federal-state clash over immigration would be one of the most significant decisions of 2012.
A poll by the Pew Research Center showed strong support for the Arizona law, especially among white voters. Of people surveyed in February, 61% approved of the law, with 34% opposed. Whites backed it nearly 3 to 1, while Latinos disapproved 3 to 1.
In addition to opposing the Arizona law, the Obama administration has contested similar immigration enforcement laws adopted by Alabama, Georgia, South Carolina and Utah.
Americans voters are closely split over what should be done about illegal immigration, Pew reported last month. When given a choice between "stronger enforcement" or a "path to citizenship," 29% said they favored enforcement, 24% said a path to citizenship, and 43% said both should be given equal priority.
When asked whether students who are illegal immigrants should be eligible for in-state college tuition, the respondents were almost evenly split: 48% said they should be eligible, and 46% disagreed.
"Americans really are of two minds on immigration. Republicans have more fire in the belly for stronger enforcement. But politically, it is also a very big issue because of Hispanics," said Andrew Kohut, president of the Pew Research Center.
The administration's lawyers would prefer that the Supreme Court steer clear of the issue. "There is no reason … to step in now," Solicitor Gen. Donald Verrilli Jr. advised the court last month. He contended that Arizona had no right to "pursue its own policy" for stopping and detaining people who are suspected of being illegal immigrants.
If the high court turns down Arizona's appeal, it will be a significant political victory for the administration. By going to court, it will have succeeded in blunting tougher enforcement laws that were strongly opposed by Latinos. But if the court votes to hear the case in the spring, it will elevate illegal immigration as a political issue.
The immigration case, like the healthcare case, pits Republican-led states against the Democratic administration. It also features the same lawyer. Paul D. Clement, the U.S. solicitor general under President George W. Bush, is representing the 26 Republican-led states that say the healthcare law should be struck down as unconstitutional. He also represents Arizona in its bid to revive its immigration law.